The arena is mostly empty, but it fills with noise. Happy noise. These moments have been too rare. The people here are the ones who won’t go away. For some of them, Missouri basketball is their job, or obligation. For some, their passion.
They are fewer in number than a school of this size should attract, and at least on this night their team gave reason for more. Kim Anderson’s job as the coach here is to provide more nights like this, enough to make it OK for more fans to love the program again. Maybe this is progress, finally.
There is no way to know that now. Only guesses. But the man who called the night before may be more qualified than anyone in the world to talk about this struggle.
“Year two is the hardest,” says Tom Crean, the Indiana basketball coach. “I’d heard that before. But year two is really, really the hardest.”
Mizzou beat South Carolina 72-67 on its home court Tuesday night. The Tigers led by as many as 15 and then hung on with energy and rebounds and defense and free throws. This was their third win in 13 conference games. At the buzzer, a player spiked the ball onto the floor. Before he took a question, South Carolina coach Frank Martin’s first words were about being happy for Anderson.
Anderson’s first words were about a pregame announcement that guard Wes Clark, the team’s second-leading scorer, was dismissed for academics. There are no undisputed victories, it seems. Mizzou is playing with some admirable drive and selflessness for a team buried in the standings, with even the conference tournament stripped from them for NCAA rules violations.
One of the problems with facing a challenge so few have conquered is that you don’t have many places to go for advice. But in Crean, Anderson has a friend and a brother and a precedent.
Crean took the Indiana job eight years ago, inheriting a depleted roster, widespread behavior and academic problems, and sanctions from the previous coach. All of that could be said of Anderson. Crean is the closest model. Anderson has gone 19-39. Crean went 16-46 in his first two years, reconstructing the roster through suspensions and dismissals.
This year Indiana just won its 20th game and is in a strong position to make its fourth NCAA Tournament in five years. The building is full. Three Hoosiers have been drafted in the first round in the last three years. Pride is back. Those first two years, painful as they were, are now the setup to a success story. That can still be Missouri’s story with Anderson.
Crean thinks enough of Anderson and sees enough similarities that he called after Anderson took the job. He wanted to share some secrets. Theirs is a small club.
“The thing about these jobs is, there’s trap doors you don’t know exist, and then all of a sudden there they are,” Crean says. “And you have to deal with them. You can’t run and hide. You have to deal with them.”
There are some fans — people who love Mizzou — calling for Anderson to be fired. That is very unlikely. Anderson is generally liked and respected by the administration and others. He walked into some problems and will almost certainly be given at least another year to find solutions.
Crean has known Anderson for decades and remembers Anderson as among those who offered encouragement and guidance when Crean was just getting into the profession. Crean was happy to return the favor.
“You’re constantly telling your team, ‘This is how we’re going to do it,’ but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re listening yet,” Crean says. “So what you do, you try to make sure you treat everybody like they’re your (recruits), but at the same time you have to get people who will fight for you and the university, and not just their own cause.
“In this day and age in recruiting, it’s very, very hard to find that. You have to work harder. He’s had to deal with some of that, in having some players who don’t necessarily respect where they’re at and how good they’ve got it. I’ve been down the same road.”
Crean means everything he says here as hope for his friend. Some of it, depending on your perspective, may read like an emphasis on the things Mizzou most lacks at the moment.
Crean says he did not know he would succeed at Indiana until the recruiting turned, which took three years, the watershed moment coming when he signed Cody Zeller — Indiana’s Mr. Basketball and a top 20 national recruit.
Until then, Crean had to sell something less tangible. He showed off the facilities, highlighted his previous success at Marquette and talked about Indiana’s tradition. That can be a hard thing, but Crean’s voice ticks up and his words come out a little faster when he talks about the fan support they got in those years.
“That’s really, really important, because without that, you’re just taking steps backward, and the fans don’t even know it,” Crean says. “Because recruits want to come where they’re going to be energized, where they’re going to be better.”
This is perhaps the biggest difference between Crean’s challenge and Anderson’s. Even in the bad years, Indiana had memories of so many good years. Basketball is central to that state in a way that doesn’t exist in many other places. Even losing 46 games those first two years, Indiana ranked in the top 20 nationally in attendance.
Missouri is different. Football is much more important here. Indianapolis is about an hour from IU’s campus. Kansas City and St. Louis are two hours away from MU. The Tigers draw big crowds when they’re good. This season they’re averaging 6,187. Crean pauses for a moment when he hears that but only for a moment.
“This is where the love of this program comes in,” he says. “You gotta remember this now: Kim’s trying to do everything he can to keep his head above water with that team. Kim is a very, very respected coach. There’s no question about that. But at the end of the day, it’s the fans and the energy of the building that’s going to push those guys forward and push recruits to want to be in it.
“That’s so important. That’s so important if it’s going to get where people want it to be at Missouri. Because things happen. It’s all how you deal with it. You can’t just do it on your own. I’m sure it creates a heck of a lot less sleep than you would want, but you have to figure out a way to overcome it.”
Maybe this is a start. This is the part of a season when teams at the bottom of the standings — not to mention teams with arrests, suspensions, and dismissals — can easily fade. You see it every year, in all sports, on all levels.
The Tigers are doing the opposite. This is two wins in a row, a first in conference play for Anderson, and this last one particularly satisfying for reasons that include but are not limited to Clark’s dismissal, leading scorer Kevin Puryear going 0-for-2 from the field, and the crowd being halved after the previous game’s terrific fundraising promotion.
Progress can be hard to find, right up until the moment it isn’t. Eight Tigers played more than 10 minutes, and all but one of them are freshmen or sophomores. This group lost to South Carolina by nine exactly one month earlier, the second of what turned out to be nine straight losses.
“Three weeks ago we would’ve lost that game,” Anderson says. “Maybe by 10 points. I think it says something about the maturity level that our guys have gotten to, but we have to keep going. We don’t have a lot of time to celebrate.”
Maybe these last two games are a blip. Maybe this will all be forgotten soon. Then again, maybe this is Anderson’s version of what Crean built at Indiana.